How School Networks Work And Why That’s Important

School networks are one of the most important innovations in the modern era of U.S. K-12 education. They have boosted achievement and graduation rates and expanded quality options in communities that most need them.

The chart below compares six types of networks ranging from voluntary associations around design principles (loose design and loose control) to managed networks (tight design and tight control). The first bullet is the key characteristic, the second includes network examples and the third is an example of a funder or advocate supporting the strategy.

Managed Networks. Charter management organizations (CMO) have grown to more than 2,800 schools (about 40% of charters). There are more than 50 high quality scaled charter networks–most share a learning model, professional learning supports and increasingly platform tools. A representative sample follows.

Harmony Public Schools has 45 STEM-focused schools in Texas and one in Washington DC. Idea Public Schools is a network of 51 blended schools in south Texas. Aspire Public Schools serves 16,000 students in 40 schools in California and Tennessee. DSST Public Schools serves 10,500 students in 11 Denver schools.

Several new charter networks have innovative learning models. Alpha Public Schools is a small blended learning leader in San Jose. Thrive Public Schools in San Diego combines personalized, project-based and social-emotional learning.

In business, these vertically integrated networks would be called enterprise systems–organizations committed to common processes, systems, and metrics.

Some small districts (see this list of 10) operate as managed networks.

Platform Networks. Summit Public Schools is a managed network of nine innovative west coast secondary schools. Through Summit Learning they share the Summit Learning Platform and train teachers in over 100 schools–an example of a platform network.

About 200 (mostly school district) schools are members of the New Tech Network and share a project-based learning model, a learning platform and professional learning opportunities. New Tech Network was formed 20 years ago around the success of New Tech High in Napa (featured image).

While not a full school model, curriculum providers such as PLTW act like platform networks by providing content on a shared platform with professional development. Apex Learning provides secondary education courses, tutorials, implementation support and professional development (see feature). Fuel Education provides online secondary courses through the Peak platform (see feature).

Design Networks. These member networks are voluntary associations of schools focused on design principles and support services. All of them benefit from philanthropic contributions.

Internship-focused Big Picture Learning partner schools share a well documented student-centered learning model. Big Picture supports 52 US schools and 39 international partner schools. Edvisions is a similar student-centered upper midwest network with 37 affiliated schools.

NAF, the largest and one of the oldest networks with more than 800 career academy members. They share the NAFTrack Certification system which combines college and career ready skills and dispositions in a comprehensive and cumulative system that combines coursework at school and workplace observations with supervisor feedback.

Voluntary Networks. With a bit more site flexibility, voluntary school networks share design principles and professional development services (but not a platform).

With roots in expeditions and Outward Bound, EL Education has 165 schools with a recent focus on curriculum. (With digital curriculum updates, EL will emerge as an important curriculum network with content, platform and PD services.)

Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network has 40 schools in eight states that share a focus on four global competencies: investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize perspectives, communicate ideas, take action. The ISSN school design includes common vision, mission and culture; shared student learning outcomes; organization and governance structures; community partnerships; a cycle of professional development; and a framework of curriculum, instruction and assessment. Like ISSN, Internationals Network for Public Schools has 22 schools serving young people new to English.

Urban Assembly serves over 9,000 students through 21 student-centered public middle and high schools, including seven career and technical schools and three all-girls schools.

YouthBuild is a network of 260 high school programs in 46 states aimed at boosting employability in building-related trades and leadership development. (All of these design and voluntary networks received early support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).

ConnectEd launched in 2009 as a nine district initiative sponsored by the Irvine Foundation. The Linked Learning approach combines college-focused academics, work-based learning and intensive student supports. ConnectEd now works with more than thirty school districts in California, Michigan, Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio and New York.

Principles Networks. Loose networks around shared principles, such as the Department of Education’s Future Ready Schools, can be scaled quickly and inexpensively but they are plagued with big variations in implementation.

EdLeader21 is a national network of school districts with shared interest in deeper learning outcomes.

Portfolio Networks. As a scaling strategy, the smallest category is portfolio networks. Like Chicago International Charter School, they are diverse school models that share school supervision and backend support systems.

Most districts operate as portfolio networks with a partially defined school model (perhaps shared schedule and calendar), graduation requirements and some curricular and support services. Unlike scratch-build networks, the decision-making framework in school districts is often a murky negotiated settlement that evolved over years of practice and policy. These idiosyncratic management systems make it challenging to create role and goal clarity–a key to performance and satisfaction.

Why Networks Matter Now More Than Ever

As discussed last month, teachers are working hard to personalize learning and new tools can help, but in many schools they don’t benefit from a fully aligned system designed for their success.

Personalized learning models are challenging to build–it’s like rocket science and brain surgery combined. Competency-based progressions add complexity and require a high degree of team coordination and new forms of student, teacher and school support. Developing or adapting platform tools to a learning model is a big technical challenge. Add talent development demands and you have a trifecta that is daunting for even the most experienced teams.

By providing design principles, curriculum materials, technology tools and professional learning opportunities, networks make it easier to create a good new school or transform an existing school. As a result, school networks will play an increasingly important role in bringing quality to scale.

While a few schools with heroic leadership can function long term on their own, most schools should join a network or operate within a network (or district that operates like a network).

Which Scaling Strategy is Best?

Each category of school network offers distinct advantages and challenges. Managed networks are expensive and challenging to build but deliver the most consistent quality. A focus on execution in managed networks can stifle innovation and creativity (see Balancing Improvement & Innovation).

Design networks and principles networks are low-cost ways to share the success of a school model. Networks like EdLeader21 serve as a professional learning community for EdLeaders. The only downside to these networks is wide-ranging implementation fidelity.

With EdTech advances, platform networks are becoming the most attractive option for scaling a learning model. Like managed networks, platform networks have relied on expensive and slow new school development. Summit Public Schools and New Tech Network are experimenting with lightweight adoption strategies where teacher teams can gain access to the learning model, platform and PD.

If you’re a school leader in a district where you’re required to use specific tools and services (like a portfolio network), check out the design networks as potential support systems for a coherent learning model.

If you’ve built a tool or platform, find or create a network that can help bring it to scale with high fidelity use.

Don’t go it alone. Join a network.

This blog is part of a multi-year campaign studying networks and their effect on education and transformation. Our work will culminate in a book publishing in 2018. Learn more and join the conversation using #NetworkEffect.

For more, see:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Donald Staub

Thanks for this breakdown. I live and work in Turkey, and the private, k12 sector is booming here, with some relatively large networks. This offers a very useful framework for helping me get my head around what may exist here...not to mention that as a researcher, it opens the door to comparative analysis. Regards.

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